In 2013, Angelena Dolezar was a first-year junior-high French teacher in Edmonton. She ran five-kilometre races, was a snowboarder and played competitive soccer in an adult league.
She was on a summer house-boating trip to British Columbia when life took a sudden calamitous turn. As Dolezar was pulled behind a boat on a tube, she released one hand to signal the driver to slow down, but the signal went unseen and as he turned the vessel, she was whipped into its wake.
Her body went one way, her left leg the other. She dislocated her left knee, fractured the tibia, severed an artery behind the knee and suffered internal bleeding.
“The stars were all aligned for a chaotic event,” says Dolezar, 36. “I don’t remember a lot of what happened. I am pretty confident I went into shock and got back on the tube.”
A friend realized she was in distress and Dolezar was taken back to the houseboat. From there, she was rushed to Shuswap Lake General Hospital. After six weeks in intensive care, a decision was made to amputate the leg above her left knee.
“Doctors did everything they could but unfortunately they couldn’t save my leg,” Dolezar says during a call from Japan, where she is competing in the Paralympics. “I took it pretty hard. I couldn’t do sports anymore, and lost a big part of my social network. It changed the way I did everything, and I don’t think I coped very well.
“It took some time, but eventually I realized I was lucky to have had successful vascular surgery, and was lucky to be alive.”
Dolezar is now a member of Canada’s women’s sitting volleyball team at the Paralympics and very much a medical marvel. In 2015, she was the first person in Canada to undergo a medical procedure called osteointegration and became the first Canadian to acquire a bionic leg.
During the operation, a titanium implant was inserted into her left femur. That allows the “smart” leg to be directly attached to it, rather than through a socket like most prosthetics. The intelligent prosthetic contains a microchip that co-ordinates the movement of her ankle and knee joint.
Dolezar planned to go to Australia to have the surgery, but learned that it could be done during a clinical trial that was conducted in Edmonton at the University of Alberta Hospital.
“It was really serendipitous,” she says. “I was the first candidate on the list. It lasts forever, and helps me achieve a higher level of function and eliminates a whole gamut of other issues. I am forever grateful.”
Dolezar is one of the liberos, or defensive specialists, on Canada’s sitting volleyball team. The position requires her to dig out opponents’ shots and do everything possible to keep the ball in play. The Canadians enter the Paralympics fifth in the world ranking, with the United States holding down No. 1. The Paralympic portion of the Tokyo Games begins Tuesday and ends on Sept. 5. Canada also has a men’s team, but it failed to qualify.
The Canadian women trained in Edmonton and flew to Tokyo via Vancouver on Aug. 13. They have been preparing since then in isolation in Shiwa, a town of 33,000 a little more than 500 kilometres to the northwest of Tokyo, but relocated on Sunday to the athletes’ village and are set to participate in the opening ceremony on Tuesday. Priscilla Gagne, a para judo star ranked second in the world in the 52-kg weight class, will be Canada’s flagbearer.
In all, 4,400 para athletes from 160 countries will participate. Canada’s team consists of 128 members from 11 provinces and territories.
Seven of the 11 players on the sitting volleyball squad hail from Alberta. All survived life-defining conditions or catastrophic injury.
Setter Jennifer Oakes lost her right leg in a boating accident. Team captain Danielle Ellis, libero Jolan Wong and attacker Heidi Peters each lost a leg to bone cancer. Anne Fergusson was born without a right hand, Amber Skyrpan was born without a femur in her right leg. Felicia Voss-Shafiq had an amputation after she came down with pneumonia and septic shock and fell into a coma. Katelyn Wright lost her right leg after a series of infections. Both Payden Vair and Julie Kozun had one leg amputated because of lawnmower accidents.
Kozun, who at 21 is the team’s youngest member, was 15 when she was pitched forward from a ride-on mower on a friend’s farm in Melfort, Sask.
“I was laying on my back and I remember it coming toward me,” she says.
When the mower ran over her, she realized that the blade cover was at her left hip.
“It suddenly stopped, and I didn’t move,” Kozun says.
Her friend pulled her out from beneath it. Kozun’s left leg was mangled from her ankle to the back of the knee. At the hospital in Melfort that day, she asked a doctor if she was going to lose it.
“He told me maybe not,” Kozun says. “I’m not sure if he believed that or was just saying it to give me hope.”
She was taken by ambulance to a larger facility in Saskatoon where surgery was performed to clean up the wound. Afterward, Kozun asked another doctor if she would be able to walk normally again if she kept the leg. She was told it was unlikely.
“‘Okay, then cut it off,’’' she told the doctor. The next day, it was amputated below her left knee.
As she grew up Kozun always had a love for volleyball, playing in high school as well as for various club teams. When she was in the hospital recovering from the amputation, her friend’s cousin, Erica Gavel, a member of Canada’s women’s wheelchair basketball team, paid a visit.
She told Kozun about sitting volleyball and later that year she joined the team. She was told she had a future in the sport, but was not convinced. She participated in an event in Beijing and fared poorly.
On the flight back to Canada, she told Nicole Ban, the team’s coach, she planned to quit, but Ban asked her to reconsider.
“I got home and said, ‘Nah, I’m not doing it,’” Kozun says. “The amputation was still very new, and I just wanted to be a kid again.”
After she graduated from high school, Kozun reached out to Ban and was able to return to the team.
“The first time I didn’t feel like I had earned it,” Kozun says. “I didn’t want to just be given a free ride.”
She is now a starting attacker and at the most important Paralympic event in the world.
At the time of her accident, Dolezar lived in Edmonton where Canada’s women’s sitting volleyball team practises. Through the grapevine, Ban contacted her and asked if she asked if she would try out. That was 2015.
“At my first practice I was absolutely horrible,” Dolezar says. “But I loved being with the other girls, and knew it was an environment I needed.”
She has been a member of the team since, and went to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 for her first Paralympics. Sitting volleyball has been part of the Paralympics since 1980, though the women’s tournament was only added in 2004. The Rio Games was the first time Canada had qualified and it finished last in the seven-team field.
“My first experience was very overwhelming,” Dolezar says. “I didn’t do a good job moderating the emotions that went with it.”
She feels more confident this time. The sitting volleyball competitions begins on Aug. 27.
“I want to show the world that I am better,” Dolezar says. “For us, this is the most important event in the world. I’m proud to represent Canada.”
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